Jesus and leadership
On Christ the King Sunday, the church is called to resist the same temptation that faced Christ, the temptation to adopt the leadership strategy of Herod, says Ken Carter.
December 15, 2009 | Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached Nov. 22, 2009, Christ the King Sunday, at Providence United Methodist Church, Charlotte, N.C.
Today we bring the Christian year to a conclusion. In the church’s calendar, Christ the King is the parallel of the Super Bowl trophy or the Final Four in college basketball or the last game of the World Series. This is what everything had been moving toward. In baseball, for example, there is spring training, the opening pitch of the season, the first games, the long summer, the end-of-year stretch, the playoffs. It all leads, for someone, to the World Series.
In the Christian year, it begins with Advent, preparation for the birth of Jesus; and then the celebration of his birth at Christmas, and then his appearances -- to the wise men, at the wedding, in the transfiguration at Epiphany -- and then he sets his face toward Jerusalem and we are plunged into the days of Lent, suffering, sacrifice and self-denial, the betrayal and death of holy week, the silence of Holy Saturday, but then the miracle of resurrection at Easter, and the prayer, over 50 days, for the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.
And then the church moves through ordinary time, and we are called to reflect on the Kingdom of God in everyday life, but all of it moving toward the conclusion. You can see it in the imagery of the Book of Revelation, or the way our hymnal is ordered at the end: death and eternal life, the communion of the saints, the return and reign of the Lord, the completion of the Creation (the City of God).
Christ the King Sunday is about the Lordship of Christ. In the words of the Revelation to John, he is the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” And yet there is a clear distinction in the passage from the Gospel of John between the rule or reign of the leaders and God’s vision. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says. Jesus did come upon the earth to establish a kingdom. It is just not what we were expecting.
To understand the kingdom language of Jesus, we have to know something about his context and the leadership structure of that day, and this had everything to do with another leader, King Herod. Herod died the year Jesus was born. Jesus was born in a cave in an out of the way town named Bethlehem. Herod was buried about three miles east of Bethlehem in a massive mountain fort, the Herodium. Jesus’ birth, despite the significance we attach to it, was a quiet affair. Herod’s burial was just the opposite; he literally had a mountain constructed in the flat desert. He wanted people to think of him and revere him long after he had died -- in fact, you can see the Herodium all the way from Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. The Herodium is impressive, and a few people visit there, but not like the crowds that flow into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Herod’s life is well known in outline -- his 10 wives, his suspicion that his favorite wife was unfaithful (he had her murdered), his murder of three of his sons. He gave instructions that on the day of his death Jewish elders from a number of villages were to be killed simultaneously -- this way lamentation would be heard across Israel (this was, mercifully, not carried out). He hears of the birth of Jesus and orders the massacre of the innocents, which sent Mary, Joseph and their newly born child, Jesus, into Egypt.
Herod was a powerful leader. His architectural influence is still present in Israel: he built the city of Caesarea on the coast, near Tel Aviv; he built Masada, and, most curiously, he rebuilt the Temple. A portion of that temple survives today: the Wailing Wall, or the Western Wall. These are massive structures. Herod ruled for 34 years. He was not a religious man, but he could use religion for his own purposes. Everything -- sports, art, architecture, shrines, palaces -- all of it was for the purpose of consolidating Herod’s power and leadership and establishing his legacy.
Jesus was born into the kingdom of Herod. Herod was a very effective leader. But Jesus quickly realized that his way of leadership would not be Herod’s. “My kingdom,” he says to Pilate, “is not of this world.” The temptation of Jesus, of course, would have been to model his techniques, his methods after Herod, but with a different outcome and goal. This was the temptation of Matthew 4 and Luke 4. The devil takes Jesus to a high mountain, and shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and says, ‘All this I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’”
The temptation of Jesus was to adopt the leadership strategy of Herod. In his book “The Jesus Way,” Eugene Peterson writes:
“So why didn’t Jesus learn from Herod? Why didn’t Jesus take Herod as his mentor in getting on in the world? In the world into which Jesus was born, no one has done this kingdom thing better. It’s true that Herod was not interested in God, but everything else was intact. All Jesus had to do was adopt and then adapt Herod’s political style, his skills, his tested principles and put them to work under the rule of God.”
The temptation of Jesus, which he rejected, must also have been the temptation of his disciples, for Jesus gave them a clear teaching about an alternative vision of leadership:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. (Mark 10:42-44)